Music Makers of the L.A. Concert Scene : Music Makers

T he local big-budget musical organizations may get the lion's share of the attention, but they are only the high-profile tip of a very broad and diversified base. Nearly 100 local orchestras, bands, festivals and presenting societies of all sizes and musical perspectives offer concerts this season, and that doesn't include the active musical life on campuses and in churches.

All of these groups confront numerous problems as they try to secure a niche in the community musical consciousness. By the same token, those that have put down roots may remain in place for decades.

Part of the process includes young artists who may later turn up at the Music Center. New work by local composers gets premieres. And some of these ensembles exist as much for the musicians' joy in the playing as for their audience's joy in the hearing.

In this article, Calendar surveys some of the organizations that make up the Southland musical mix.

LOS ANGELES MOZART ORCHESTRA--When the Academy Award-winning film "Amadeus" scored a hit at the box office, business also picked up for the Los Angeles Mozart Orchestra.

Fascination with the life and difficult times of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart continues, and audience attendance at the orchestra's three-concert series at the 1,200-seat Wilshire Ebell Theatre has reached near capacity.

Performing the repertory of "Beethoven and before," the ensemble generally numbers 25, drawn from a pool of professional musicians paid union scale.

The 1989/90 season, budgeted under $100,000, opens Saturday under the direction of David Keith, who founded the orchestra in 1975 "as a tribute to the towering genius of Mozart." Ticket sales account for approximately 30% of income earned, the rest comes from individual supporters and foundations. The orchestra also is a recipient of a $3,000 grant from the Cultural Affairs Department of the city of Los Angeles.

In his second appearance with the group, actor Walter Matthau--a "real Mozart fan," according to orchestra officials-- will conduct an encore at the closing concert in May, marking his second appearance with the group.

PASADENA COMMUNITY ORCHESTRA--"If this type of group didn't exist, the biggest loss would be the lack of opportunity for non-professional musicians to play really good music literature," said Wayne Reinecke, music director. "There are lots of amateur student orchestra groups, but not many for adults."

The 5-year-old Pasadena Community Orchestra manages to draw 500 to 800 people for each concert, said Reinecke. "We do have kind of a community feeling, and I think people enjoy that--it's kind of relaxed," he said. "People also really liked coming to our former location (a Methodist church in Pasadena) because it was aesthetically pleasant."

Of course, presenting concerts makes the rehearsal time worthwhile for the 60-odd musicians who will play five free concerts in the Pasadena Community Orchestra's 1989-1990 season, which opens Friday. A new location, First Church of the Nazarene in Pasadena, will provide better lighting, more possibilities for staging and vital room for a piano.

"It's been a very successful group. They play well, and I try to program music that's enjoyable for the listeners, mostly from the late Classical-early Romantic period, with the occasional piece from a later period. I guess it appeals to people," Reinecke said.

Most of the orchestra's musicians live in the Pasadena-Altadena-Arcadia area, but one musical couple treks in from Chatsworth and another member commutes from Canyon Country for the weekly rehearsals. None of the musicians are paid, which means the orchestra is able to operate on an annual budget of less than $20,000, raised largely through at-the-door contributions and some modest fund-raising campaigns.

Currently, there are more potential players on a waiting list than Reinecke can use. "At least 50% of the group have probably been with us for five years," he said. "They have all kinds of occupations, from teachers to Jet Propulsion Lab technicians to homemakers. They play music simply for the the joy of playing."

THE MUSIC CIRCLE--Since its inception 16 years ago, the Music Circle has been a major force in importing classical music from India, drawing audiences as large as 2,000 for a performance by sitarist Ravi Shankar. Founded by Shankar and his student Harihar Rao, the Music Circle's season runs through June, usually at Occidental College, and encompasses six to 12 concerts.

"All our performers are native Indian and acknowledged artists, on the same level of recognition as Van Cliburn," Rao said. But getting them into the United States is so big a headache that concerts can be announced only four to six weeks in advance.

The Music Circle does not directly sponsor and invite individuals to perform. As Rao said, "We have the money and the lawyers, but bringing artists and trying to obtain H1 (temporary performing artists) visas on our own is an ulcer-producing situation. It is easier to be the local sponsor instead of having to worry about missed planes and lost contracts."

Instead, artists are invited to perform by the Amir Khusro Society of America, a nonprofit cultural organization based in Chicago. Also, the Indian music program at the University of Pittsburgh provides artists for the concerts in Southern California, said Rao.

"Indian classical music is similar to New Age music--it is disciplined and ritualistic. It is improvised and does not have a definite composition," said Rao, the executive director of the Music Circle.

A volunteer and self-sufficient organization, the Music Circle boasts a membership of 1,500 who pay a fee ranging from $10 to $1,000, which covers administrative costs. Ticket receipts, at $10 to $12, go to the artists.

SAN FERNANDO VALLEY SYMPHONY--At San Fernando Valley Symphony, one of the emphases is to attract the young. Evening concerts admit children under the age of 12 for free, and the symphony stages a series of concerts just for young people, in which characters like Andante the Space Alien introduce children to the "rad" new world of symphony music. The symphony welcomes listeners of all ages and pours considerable effort into wooing families.

"We do want to provide alternative entertainment for families. We'd like to interest young people in something besides television," said Maryann Mendenhall, general manager of the orchestra.

The 42-year-old ensemble of free-lance professional musicians fell on hard times in the early '80s due to a stream of conductors and decreasing audience interest. In 1985, young conductor Lois Johnson stepped to the podium, and with the help of her attorney husband began to court corporate sponsors for the group. Those annual donations total about $13,000, and with city grants, season subscriber funds and ticket sales, barely allow the orchestra to cover its $80,000 annual expenses.

Increasing individual subscriber support is a main goal of the group. "We need to intensify and upgrade our marketing program, to let other people know about us," Mendenhall said. One of the orchestra's biggest challenges is convincing people they can have a pleasurable and professional musical experience in the auditorium of Birmingham High School in Van Nuys.

The symphony also provides variety: one program last year included Brahms Symphony No. 2, film composer Bruce Broughton's music from "Silverado" and "Young Sherlock Holmes," and the world premiere of a Broughton violin concerto titled "Three Incongruities."

"A lot of music out there is not audience-friendly. We do want to expose people to new things, but we want them to enjoy themselves even as we try to lift their level of understanding," Mendenhall said.

FULLERTON FRIENDS OF MUSIC-- The Fullerton Friends of Music operates on a meager $10,000 budget, but it is the oldest chamber music series in Orange County--and still the only professional chamber music organization offering a regular series of concerts in north Orange County.

Founded in 1958 by harpsichordist Beulah Strickler, the Friends present five free concerts at Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton.

Audiences are now at the hall's capacity--approximately 350. But Strickler resists the idea of moving the concerts to a larger auditorium.

"This is the way chamber music should be heard--in a small venue," she says.

Groups appearing on the series are a mix of local, national and international talent.

The remaining 1989-90 concerts include the Angeles Quartet, Dec. 3; a Baroque-styled orchestra, including members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Jan. 21; I Cantori, March 4, and the New York-based Leonardo Trio, April 8.

The Friends raise the budget money from memberships (ranging from $15 to $500), matching funds from corporations and a $1,250 grant from the city of Fullerton.

"Because our concerts are admission-free, some people think that either we don't pay the artists--which is not true--or that they are less valuable than something people have paid for," Strickler says. "That's one thing I've always been bothered by."

BEVERLY HILLS SYMPHONY--"Having an identity, an individuality, is essential for an orchestra to survive," says Bulgarian-born Bogidar Avramov, conductor of the Beverly Hills Symphony. (Founded in 1963, the orchestra was formerly known as the Westside Symphony. Avramov took over the helm in 1970).

Avramov, a professor of music at Loyola Marymount University and a resident of Beverly Hills, strives to program neglected and unusual works, not an easy task in a city "more interested in glamour and glitz than serious art," he says.

For the winter season's opening concert on Dec. 2 at the Wilshire Ebell Theatre, he has scheduled Olivier Messiaen's "Hymne au Saint Sacrement." In the summer of '88, he scheduled Igor Stravinsky's Concerto in E-flat, "Dumbarton Oaks," at Greystone Park, the orchestra's summer home in Beverly Hills.

The 1989-90 season is budgeted at $200,000. Fifty percent of income is derived from the Beverly Hills Symphony Assn., numbering 1,500 supporters. The City of Beverly Hills has awarded the orchestra a $40,000 grant.

The 65-member professional ensemble also presents an annual Christmas concert at a supporter's home.

LOS ANGELES POPS ORCHESTRA--It thrives on variety.

For July 4, the musicians took their places at 3:30 a.m. on Santa Monica Beach and played "patriotic" music by Aaron Copland and John Williams for more than 200,000 celebrants.

Each winter--this year's season begins Dec. 15--the 60-member professional ensemble gives five performances at the downtown Biltmore Hotel.

Summers, the orchestra sets up shop on the tennis exhibition court of the Warner Center in Woodland Hills to present six to eight concerts for a maximum crowd of 1,500. Programs include works by Leonard Bernstein, Richard Rodgers and Michel Legrand, interspersed with the war horses of Liszt, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Then there's dates at private clubs and on behalf of charitable organizations. . . .

Founded in 1977 by Carlo Spiga, then a violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the orchestra has an annual operating budget of $800,000 and carries a yearly deficit of approximately $300,000. Major support comes from corporate sponsors.

"Our audiences are not socialites," says Victor Wong, the orchestra's general manager. "Rather, they're everyday and corporate types."

Contributors to this report: John Henken, Greta Beigel, Chris Pasles, Lori E. Pike and Felicia Paik.

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